Abortion rights legislation shows two houses clearly divided


OLYMPIA — Democrats in Washington’s House of Representatives passed an abortion-rights bill Friday, sending it to the Senate, where Republicans have refused to hold hearings on identical proposals.

The handling of what’s known as the Reproductive Parity Act — requiring insurance policies that cover maternity services to also cover abortion — may be the clearest example of the political divide between a House firmly controlled by Democrats and a Senate ruled by a coalition dominated by Republicans.

But it’s not the only example, as a key deadline passed Friday with the legislative session’s 40th day, leaving just a fraction of the bills introduced this year still alive.

House Democrats held hearings on gun-control legislation and may vote in mid-March on a package of reforms that will include background checks for private gun sales. The Senate Law and Justice Committee responded by taking the unusual step Friday of voting down five gun-related bills, four without a hearing, after the legislative chamber’s minority Democrats demanded they be considered. None of the five put to a vote was as controversial as the universal background check bill.

Senate Republicans are moving forward with more reforms to the state’s workers’ compensation system, which House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, insisted last week are unnecessary.

The Senate also approved, in its first major budget action, a $475 million construction plan for public schools. Republicans said it’s an example of moving quickly to put education first by producing that budget ahead of other capital projects.

The House will produce a “comprehensive” capital budget that includes school projects with everything else, Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, responded.

Whether this foreshadows impending gridlock or is seeding the ground for compromises near the end of the 105-day session remains unclear.

Friday’s Reproductive Parity Act debate produced the usual split between abortion rights supporters and foes. Opponents pinned white ribbons to their jackets and supporters wore buttons that said “Privacy, Justice, Freedom.” In an unusual twist, both sides claimed to be champions of “choice.”

The bill requires that an insurance plan with maternity care coverage also cover abortion services, with limited exceptions for religious organizations. Those exceptions generally do not extend to private employers with religious objections to abortion.

Both sides agreed that nearly every insurance plan in Washington currently covers abortion, but that could change with the Affordable Care Act.

State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said the bill would ensure that women who are victims of rape or decide for other reasons to have an abortion will have the medical coverage to carry out that choice and not be restricted by the religious beliefs of their employer.

State Rep. Shelly Short, R-Addy, said insurance plans in rural areas are limited and this would limit them even more, taking away her right to choose a plan that doesn’t cover abortion. Although the Affordable Care Act will require at least one plan in each state not to cover abortion, that plan might not be available in her northeast Washington district, Short said.

After passing 53-43 on a party-line vote, the bill goes to the Senate where three identical bills were denied hearings, two in the Health Care Committee and one in Law and Justice. That put pressure on Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, of Medina, one of two conservative Democrats who joined the 23 Republicans to form the coalition majority, because he personally supports the bill and at one point promised sponsors a hearing. It was a sign of the coalition’s ability to be open and consider new ideas, Tom said early in the session, that Senate committees would consider both the Reproductive Parity Act and a separate bill requiring parental notification for most minors seeking an abortion.

The parental notification bill got a two-hour hearing in the Law and Justice Committee, but Senate parity bills never got a hearing. Senate Health Care Committee Chairwoman Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, said earlier in the week she’d hold a hearing on the House bill if it passed.

But the parental notification bill is apparently dead. Law and Justice Chairman Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said Friday the members decided not to bring it to a vote even though he thought he had the votes to pass it out of committee. It faced a contentious debate on the Senate floor and uncertain prospects, with Tom and some Republican members of the coalition likely to vote no and some Democrats likely to vote yes.

The House version of the parental notification bill, sponsored by state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, never got an airing in the House Health Care and Wellness Committee.

The Legislature now turns its attention to budget and tax bills, which must pass their committees by next Friday. Democrats in both chambers have proposed a wide array of new taxes, rate increases and loophole closings, but the majority coalition in the Senate has vowed to oppose any new tax or increase to solve the state’s projected budget shortfall, and plans to hold Gov. Jay Inslee to a campaign promise to do the same.

Prospects seem good for a month of political back-and-forth until March 20, when the state’s revenue forecast is released and legislators have a more definite figure to plug into the income side of their biennial operating budgets.